Tuesday, October 01, 2013

There is no depression in Tonga

Apologies for the lack of posts here over the past week. Skyler, Aneirin, and I have been hosting the Kiwi auteur, write, actor and Zen Buddhist Richard Von Sturmer, who has escaped the cold spring weather and post-America's Cup recriminations of his homeland for the heat, quarried reefs, and overgrown monuments of Tongatapu.

Richard is hoping that, while he snorkels and drinks kava here in Tonga, one of his best-known works will be earning him money in New Zealand. Back in 1981 he and his mate Don McGlahlan wrote a sarcastic punk anthem called 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand' as a protest against the repressive government of Rob Muldoon. The song became a hit for McGlashlan's band Blam Blam Blam, and it still turns up on telly and the radio whenever God's Own Country is in a particularly mordant mood. As his countrymen mourn the failure of their Cup challenge, Richard is expecting more royalty cheques.

The other day we took Richard to Visesio Siasau's studio in Haveluloto, a village-cum-suburb-of-Nuku'alofa that sits beside a particularly polluted stretch of Fanga'uta lagoon. Visesio is living with his Catholic parents on a narrow street of crushed coral dominated by born-again Mormons whose contempt for alcohol is only matched by their appetite for kava. Twenty-five Mormons live in the husked vehicles and half-built cottage of the section beside the Siasau property.

One of Visesio's latest tapa cloths hung in the still air at the front his family home; with its portraits of a demented, debauched Tongan king and a Jesus branded with dollar signs, it might have been the banner of a besieged rebel. Visesio usually works in three dimensions, and a series of sculpted figures - a louche Virgin Mary, a gaudy Jesus, pagan Gods with painfully large erections - lay on a long table, waiting to be introduced to one another.

As we sat over coffee on his family's verandah, where more tapa cloths were drying, Visesio explained that he was working late into the night as he prepared for an upcoming exhibition in China, where he will have the difficult job of representing contemporary Tongan culture. He will have to present all of his China-bound work to a panel made up of three members of the Tongan Cabinet, a body not known for its appreciation of serious art.

Visesio was more worried, though, about the reaction of his mother to his new creations. "She came out late last night, saw what I was working on, and began to scratch at the tapa" he confessed, in a suddenly low voice. "She wanted to erase the images. My mother told me that she put me on a bike as a child, teaching me about the church, giving me rosary beads to fondle. Now she says I have fallen off the bike."

As Visesio spoke a woman with a shock of white hair limped onto the verndah, leaned slowly over, and carefully peeled a long sliver of paint off the concrete floor. When she had straightened up again, I told Mrs Siasau how highly I value her son's work, and what an honour it is for him to represent his country in China. "He has a lot of ideas" she replied, tapping the top of her forehead with a curled finger and grinning wryly. "A lot of ideas. Sometimes too many."

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Stephen Vete said...

Great to read about Visesio who I recently read about in an article by academic Teena Brown-Pulu. Loved your piece on Tevita Latu as well.
Re the sentence in your article:
He will have to present all of his China-bound work to a panel made up of three members of the Tongan Cabinet, a body not known for its appreciation of serious art.
What was the result of the panel's deliberations on the art works destined for China? Can you provide the names of the three member panel?

Stephen Vete

11:14 am  
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